During a visit to the Bread Loaf School of English in August, a place I have taught on and off for nearly thirty years and one whose natural beauty (in Vermont’s lush Green Mountains) always renews my spirit, I got to attend a workshop put on by Bread Loaf students. Titled “An Anti-Racist Teach In,” the workshop lasted two hours and engaged everyone in the audience (probably 40 to 45 of us) in a series of activities designed to make us more aware of racist words and deeds and to help us develop ways to combat them.
The leaders began by introducing us to their “community contract”:
- Be willing to sit with your discomfort.
- Don’t assume. Ask questions to clarify.
- Speak from your own experience.
- Remember, impact is more important than intention.
- Be conscious not to shift attention away from people and situations that are negatively impacted by systems of oppression by focusing on those who are privileged by them.
- Expect unfinished business.
These statements gave us much to think about and to discuss in small groups, which were all, thankfully, diverse. The leaders also asked us to carefully consider some terms and, perhaps, come to a new understanding of their meanings: race, racism, whiteness, anti-racism, postionality, privilege, intersectionality, microaggressions, and white supremacy. While these terms are all familiar to me, our discussion of them added a lot of nuance and what Wayne Booth called “overstanding” so that I came away with new information not only about the terms themselves but about their effect on real people in real places. I was particularly struck by our discussion of “microaggression,” defined as “small daily insults and indignities against marginalized or oppressed people.” What I learned was how such small things always accumulate, becoming overwhelming and intolerable, and how such “small daily indignities” felt to the people in my group.
After these discussions, we went outside and paired up in various configurations to do some role playing that involved a LOT of listening really closely to others, a lot of careful observation, and a lot of making a space that was inviting and open. The student leaders (all high school teachers) had worked out every detail and led us in easy yet sure-footed ways. Brilliant. And effective.
I came away grateful not only for what I learned but grateful for these teachers, and for those of us attending the workshop, all now back in classrooms across the country trying very hard to implement anti-racist teaching. I’m wondering if readers of this post did any work this summer on anti-racist teaching and, if so, if you would share your experiences with us. We all have so much to learn—and also the responsibility to do so, and to pass it on.
Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3513653 by rawpixel, used under the Pixabay License